A sharp response to BefeQadu Z. Hailu’s recent article about the Amhara people.

|Wond WossenThis is a rejoinder to BefeQadu Z. Hailu’s recent article about the Amhara people. Before proceeding to my response, let me say that I have a huge respect for BefeQadu. He is a man of incredible integrity. He is unfazed by fear of criticism, name-calling or even political intimidation to express his beliefs. In a society where political fear is the order of the day, it takes immense courage to express one’s opinion in public.

Having said that, I cannot hide the shock I felt when I read his poorly informed article about the Amharic language and the Amhara people in general. His article is so full of linguistic and historical inaccuracies and unsubstantiated claims that it makes the task of responding to it that much more difficult. Although I provided a quick response to his article on his wall, that response was neither comprehensive nor properly documented. I wrote it in haste, and couldn’t refute all the major flaws in the article. Given the level of ignorance that BefeQadu’s promoted in his article, a more comprehensive response would be appropriate. Such a response will help to clarify confusions while also offering BefeQadu a chance to educate himself about the Amharic language and the Amhara people.

Let’s start with his claim that Amharic emerged out of Oromos attempt to speak Geez sometime in the 13th century. This claim would have been laughable had it not been insulting to Amharas. To begin with, there is no written evidence to suggest that Oromos had made it to highland Ethiopia by the 13th century. Oromos earliest recorded presence in highland Ethiopia is in the 2nd half of the 16th century. The perceptive Portuguese traveler who traveled the length of the country in the 1520’s, Francesco Alvarez, made no mention of Oromos in his voluminous travel account, while most other medieval Ethiopian populations were mentioned. Second, Geez is believed to have seized as a spoken language somewhere between the 10th and the 11th century (see, Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on Geez). So how Oromos were able to practice Geez, in the 13th century––a dead language by then––and invent Amharic, is a question to which only BefeQadu knows the answer. BefeQadu’s thesis also raises another question: if Oromos had this wonderful pattern of fashioning a new language from an existing one, how come they failed to create a new language when they attempted to speak Amharic during the 17th and 18th centuries? The truth is that Amharic is a Semitic language derived linearly from proto Ethio-Semitic. The Semitic status of Amharic among modern linguists is a fact as readily accepted as the sun rising in the East. It is not even up for debate!

Second, the date he suggested for the origin of Amharic, sometime in the 13th century, is simply too outrageous to even be considered as a remote possibility. According to Girma Awgichew, a prominent linguist and specialist of Semitic studies, a language requires up to a 1000 year to evolve into a fully developed language. Amharic was already fully developed by around the 10th, 11th century, or even before that. If you add another 1000 year to this, Amharic would easily have more than 2000 years of existence as a distinct language. Likewise, Amharic possesses several archaic (very old) Semitic words that cannot be expected to be found in a young language which supposedly originated as late as the 13th century. Some of those archaic Semitic words it lost overtime are preserved in its off-shot, the Argobba language. All these evidences indicate that Amharic is quite an old language.

Third, BefeQadu confidently asserted that Amharic became the language of the court only 200 years ago. This too is another laughable assertion. Amharic has been the language of the court since at least the time of the Solomonids in the 13th century. Geez’s role in the court was mainly written, while Amharic was used for officiating, judgement, administration, and diplomatic correspondence. There is even a possibility that Amharic achieved an official status before that. Oral tradition holds that Emperor Lalibela made Amharic the language of his court in Roha. This tradition is recounted in Sergew Hablesellassie’s: Ancient and Medieval Ethiopia. Indeed, Professor Sergew additionally noted that the well-known saying…”አገው ሲሰደድ አማራ ሲለምድ” was created around this period to convey Agaw’s persecution by Emperor Lalibela and his Amhara henchmen

Fourth, BefeQadu claimed that Amhara did not descend from a single ethnic group. As I also pointed out in my comment on his wall, this conclusion is objectionable on two accounts. First, a language cannot evolve without a particular ethnic group speaking it as its mother tongue. Amharic could not have originated and survived for thousands of years without a group of Amhara people speaking it as their mother tongue. Second, there is written evidence that the medieval Amhara population identified itself as a distinct ethnic group. A direct reference is made to “የአምሓራ ዠር” in an Amharic poem composed some 600 years ago! “የአምሓራ ዠር” was invoked to distinguish Amhara from other ethnic groups, demonstrating that Amharas not only had a distinct ethnic identity but also were conscious of it, and employed it to define themselves in relation to others.

Fifth, BefeQadu showed his complete ineptitude by trying to define Amhara in the eyes of others. This is a very problematic idea. First, the idea that Oromos view Amharas as Sidamas, if it was ever true, cannot make Amharas Sidama. This is simply a misconception from which conclusions about the identity of the Amhara cannot be drawn. Such misconceptions are common even today. In some places, highlanders are collectively identified as Amharas. Does that make all highlanders Amharas? Second, if we are to apply the same principle for other ethnic groups, and attempt to define them in terms of how others view them, we will end up legitimizing all sorts of ethnic labels that are considered derogatory for modern ears. Let us just say that BefeQadu’s idea of defining Amharas in the eyes of others is not a bright one.

Sixth, after acknowledging that Amharas exhibit a common psychological make up, BefeQadu claims that “This common psychological make up is usually pride.” I would argue that Amharas share far more things in common than pride in their role as one of the makers of the Ethiopia state. They share identical language, religion (both Islam and Tewahdo), economy (ox-plow agriculture) and cultural complex. In fact, for the size of the Amhara population and the vast geographic area in which it settled in, the population exhibits remarkable linguistic and cultural homogeneity, which bears witness to their gradual expansion from a single source to the areas that they inhabit today.

Seventh, BefeQadu bizzarely claimed Amharas “…hate anyone who hates the Imperial rulers and dislike who doesn’t like the state.” This is quite a silly thing to say really, and very unbefitting to BefeQadu’s status. Anyone who is familiar with the student movement knows that Amharas were at the forefront of dismantling the imperial regime. Some of the prominent leaders of the student movement were ethnic Amharas. At the same time, the student movement was supported by large segments of the Ethiopian population, including Amharas. And, why should it at all be surprising that Ethiopians long for the yesteryear when HaileSellasie’s replacements are Mengistu and Meles. This is simply a senseless statement to make, and goes to show the depth of BefeQadu’s blind spot regarding the Amhara people.

Finally, BefeQadu characterized Amharas as individualistic. It is obvious that he borrowed this idea from Donald Levine’s brilliant analysis of Ethiopian society. However, BefeQadu seems to have either misunderstood or intentionally misappropriated Professor Levine’s interpretation. Professor Levine characterized Amharas as individualistic in relative, not absolute, terms. He was comparing Oromos with Amharas, and found the former, given their pastoralist background, leaning toward collectivism, and the latter, given their agrarian roots, leaning toward individualism. However, this doesn’t mean that Amharas are incapable of cooperation as BefeQadu mistakenly concluded. After all, Amharas have perfected such collectivist institutions as Mehaber, Edir, Debo, etc. They also built a vast empire and preserved it for more than 700 years! All these could not have been accomplished had they been incapable of cooperation. If this is about Amharas’ inability to forge a strong ethno-nationalist movement, the reason, I would argue, lies elsewhere, not in their supposed individualism. Amharas didn’t experience the full force of historical conditions that often motivates ethno-nationalism. Their historical experience as state builders feeds into an expansive, outward looking form of state nationalism, not into a narrow, inward looking form of ethno-nationalism. Since the end of the imperial order, however, that reality has shifted, and with it, the ethnic consciousness of Amharas is gradually developing. Regardless, I don’t think now is the time to judge whether Amhara nationalism succeeded or not. It’s barely five years old!

To conclude, BefeQadu’s latest article suffers from an astonishing level of ignorance about the history, language and culture of the Amhara people, and indeed other people of Ethiopia. The flaws are so overwhelming that one wonders if it is innocent ignorance or a deliberate misinformation campaign. One can only hope that BefeQadu will in the future restrict himself to writing on topics that he is more familiar with.

Source: Wond Wossen


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